I am not into cancer movies. There’s something about the majority of them – at least the ones I’ve seen – that does not accurately portray my reality of having cancer. Maybe that’s too much to expect from Hollywood, but it still bothers me how they leave out some of the real and true details – like when a patient loses support from friends or family; or people not wanting to hear about your reality; or the way unresolved family drama isn’t “cured” because one of the members is facing the disease, and everyone becomes a supposedly better and wiser and kinder person because of it.
There is, however, one particular cancer movie that touches me every time I see it. The movie is called “My Life” with Nicole Kidman and Michael Keaton. The movie isn’t necessarily perfect, but from my perspective, it deals with cancer more believably than the other cancer movies. I appreciate it because it covers a lot of subtle topics: letting go of control, rancor, emotional pain from childhood, walking away, desperation, challenging family relationships, fear, acceptance — what I call dealing with the “unfinished business.” Those are things I can relate to. Another reason I like it is that the character gains closure before he dies. I guess that’s my Hollywood fantasy about the way I wish my own post-dx family situations could work out.
So far, this gaining of closure hasn’t been my personal experience. Obviously, I wouldn’t want the same outcome as the character from the movie, but I wouldn’t mind reaching some level of resolution in my life. I am speaking specifically about challenging family relationships that go back long before I was ever diagnosed. During my treatments, more frequently than not, we were kind to one another. Then, when treatments ended for me, things went back to disappointment, judgments, anger, misconceptions, and manipulations.
Everyone has family drama in some form. Mine seem to go back to my infancy. As a reminder, I was not raised by my biological parents, but by my maternal grandparents. That fact wasn’t especially dramatic or traumatizing for me because my grandmother did a great job raising me. And I was happy. I saw my biological mother very rarely, so our relationship was never solid. Our relationship did not improve when I came to the U.S. to live with her full time when I was 14. We simply lacked a mother/daughter bond that should have been natural, but wasn’t because of all the circumstances, including some circumstances I still don’t understand. It’s sad. Whether I like to admit it or not, my anger over not having a motherly bond has contributed to how I was shaped as a person. [And, the death of my grandma when I was still in my teens took away the person who really mothered me.]
Despite my mother and I not being able to bond, and me trying to accept that fact and move past it, it still hurts me. Deep down, I wish I had a different situation, closer to my perception of what a healthy, supportive family is supposed to look and feel like. My grandmother represents what that means. But she is gone.
Unlike the character in “My Life,” I have not reached any resolution with some of my family members. I’ve tried to talk about my feelings many times before, but the communication gets lost in defensiveness (probably on both sides). The idea that I will be waiting for my ‘last minute’ (or theirs) with the hope of there being a movie-style resolution to our problems feels very sad. And at that point, I wouldn’t want to deal with it, to be honest. I’m already too frustrated and tired, looking for understanding that never comes, and dealing with the disappointment.
Family dramas don’t get fixed by cancer. And just because you walk away from a situation (like I’ve tried to) doesn’t mean you’re healed.
Since my dx and treatments, people seem to have expected me to change and become who THEY wanted me to become, in addition to being more tolerant than ever of their unreasonable behavior toward me. It hurts me to say, but more than one family member has expressed the idea that “God gave her this disease to send her a message so that she changes her ways.” And yes, knowing that some ‘loved ones’ have those attitudes has not helped me to be more tolerant of them.
Maybe we all have a different perception of what family is supposed to be. I know that my inability to accept the fact that this is just “how it is” doesn’t allow me to move forward and free myself from emotional pain, disappointment, and frustration.
Like Michael Keaton in the movie, I often feel like I am running out of time. I don’t want to be hung up on these unresolved family matters that I tried to walk away from (for my sense of well being). The character from the movie actually walked away too, and even changed his name. I need to be at peace with the idea that my family situations may never be resolved and that sometimes unfinished business stays unfinished.
Rebeca, the details of my life are not like yours, but I can relate to every thought and emotion you have expressed in this post. I am sorry your pain seems to have no end. The problems within my family are always rooted in selfishness. I can find no other word to explain it. Maybe that is the same with yours.
I, too, have heard a family member say that my cancer was the result of how I live my life. Another said that famous line “everything happens for a reason”. These ideas come from religious teachings of which I believe have caused more harm than the good. They have pitted us against each other. Blame happens because people can’t accept that maybe things happen without reason. Bad things happen to good people despite my family member expressing that a friend’s daughter’s need for a kidney transplant occurred because my friend did not pray hard enough. Such righteousness is deplorable. See? No family is without problems. I hope someday your family members will leave their selfishness behind and treat each other–family or not–like they matter. I wish the same for mine.
Hi Lisa, thank you for your kindness. I am sorry you’re dealing with some unresolved family issues too. And for someone to blame you for having cancer is simply awful. I think it’s only partially related to religious teachings. The other side of it has to do with the inability of the other person to accept that this can happen to them too. I am not able to clearly define what the root of my family situation is, other than to say that there’s a lack of bond. I have good relationships with others in my family and we are not perfect. Yet, it has become more challenging to keep the same level of consistency with others (and perhaps the expectations are different for each person depending on what the relationship is). And those I have a hard time connecting with are the ones I did not grow up with. It is what it is. I hope you’re doing well. xx
Rebecca, some of the disappointment can be resolved by being yourself supportive of others. I’m in conversation with a very old friend and my being attentive to her as best I can dissolves some of the hurt impersonal treatment by the medical system. What I experiencing is not the same as family support / betrayal but it falls into feeling like I’m not permitted to be a witness of myself because others (doctors, receptionists, nurses) are sanctified by the purity of their “good intentions.” I love being in conversation where it’s possible to be gentle with someone else’s hurt rather than see it as an opportunity to correct or “fix” them.
As adults, we seem to be required to “know” things and have all the answers.
Hi Scott, offering some level of kindness to others has alleviated some of that frustration I feel (and sometimes those “strangers” become family). Being exposed to other people’s pain makes you realize it’s not just you dealing with the drama. Like you, I’ve taken this as an opportunity to be gentle (and slow down). However, if we’re talking about the people doing the “hurting”, that’s another story. I am not sure I see it as me trying to “fix” them but rather wanting to find some common ground and understanding. Don’t get me wrong, I do have the ability to look at myself, and I realize I am not perfect either. I def. don’t have all the answers but I wish I did. I hope you (and your wife) are doing well. xx
What I meant by fixing is not me trying to fix others but the sense I get from medical people that they can’t help me unless I transform myself into a contented patient. The loss of self as payment for the “health” model they offer is not a game I’ll play. We are all going to run into people who consider us unsuitable to co-exist in their reality and unfortunately some of my caregivers are among those people. Sadly, in order to remain afloat, I need to toss a few of them overboard. It’s their right to not approve of me as it is my right to stay away from them.
Real life doesn’t always get tied up in satisfying resolutions. However, I have found that when there are family deficits, sometimes a person comes along who is not biological tied to you, but who fills a certain role. It’s not like you put a label on it, but it’s something that just is.
So perfectly said, Eileen. Thank you for pointing this out. I’ve been lucky to have found some great support from “strangers” who eventually become family. xx
Rebecca, I feel your pain and sadness acutely. I loved my mother very much, but we didn’t always have an easy relationship with her and when she died there were still much that was left unresolved. it has made the grieving process painful, complicated and prolonged since her death. Her death has also fractured our family dynamic and relationships within the family are very strained. It has left me feeling very alone and lonely, I really want to thank you for writing so honestly about your experience. I feel as if I am surrounded by happy families, when the reality is that many of us suffer the pain of less than perfect family lives. I also really appreciate what Lisa and Eileen have said in their comments too. Sending healing thoughts your way xxx
Hi Marie, I am sorry about your relationship with your mom, and about her passing and your family dynamic. I’ve thought about how my mother’s death would impact me and my family relationships, too. I appreciate you being honest about your situation as well. I have a feeling my pain will always be there. Right now the most difficult part of this is not being able to tell my grandma how much she meant to me, because at the time I moved with my biological mother, I was under the impression I was going to have a normal situation. But that was not the case. Things went really wrong for a long time, and they continue to be far from perfect. My grandmother always knew this which is why she came to stay with us for months at a time. I need to accept that I will never have the same relationship I had with my grandmother.
I hope you feel some sense of community and support from us. We appreciate and care for you a lot. xx
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Oh gosh, as you know, this is a topic that intrigues me. One thing I would say is that even in families with mostly solid relationships among most members, there are under currents. There are always skeletons, for lack of a better term. There are always secrets. There are always expectations and therefore disappointments, and more times than not, there is unfinished business of some sort. I don’t know all the details of your family history, nor does anyone know all the details of mine. But I do know it’s natural for you to feel sad and a profound sense of loss regarding that lack of a bond with your biological mother. How could you not? And the fact your grandmother died when you were so young, compounds this. So you have a lot of emotional turbulence, yes even anger about this. Wish I had some answers for you. I will say, keep communicating when you’re up to it. Don’t give up on the people that matter to you most and do your best because that’s all you can do. Some relationships improve over time and some just do not, for whatever reasons. Like you said, you then need to find peace with that too. Easier said than done, I know. Thank you for sharing with us.
Btw, I do watch cancer movies, even though as you said, many are so out of touch. But I have not seen, “My Life”. I’ll have to watch it sometime.
Hi Nancy, thank you for your kind words. I remember ‘family dynamic’ was one of the topics you illustrated in your memoir.You’ve described my feelings accurately – I feel both sadness and anger about my family situation. Like you mentioned, having expectations have contributed to my emotions. I’ve improved a lot in this area though but I am also human. I think when the opportunity comes, I’ll be able to start the conversation, again, if I feel the need to (and if I am ready). Hopefully we’ll all be committed to listening. xx
Rebecca, wonder what it is that causes us to explore our relationships with others at a much deeper level in the midst of illness? Something to do with our vulnerability that makes us vigilant to disappointments we could pass over before without need to name their parts? I think your urge to explore the emotional is really brave and it might be that some don’t want to follow you there.
Also, for me, what makes a relationship important has become way more impatient of excuses and politeness.
Scott, as I was writing this piece I realized the same thing. There’s something about going through illness that makes you question everything, especially your relationships. We become so vulnerable that everything just seems so raw (and magnified). You said something very interesting, “…it might be that some don’t want to follow you there”. It could be that they wouldn’t mind following me as long as it’s done under their terms. And it could also be that the road is too hard for them to follow. Thank you for your insightful comment.
Rebecca, thinking about the relationships that fail me with medical people they are build from a chance meeting of strangers. The roles aren’t developed over time and from trial and error as they are with family. These are shortened relationships with specific scripts with little open time to repair missteps and accidental hurts. Conditions are to be dealt with while needs that range off into emotion are beyond the scope of a medical encounter. So maybe my disappointment is based on an over-expectation or even an idealized expectation of what can be given. It’s not to say that I need to be un-expecting of human treatment but perhaps because the encounter is among people who are strangers to each other, there needs to be an allowance on my part for some of the unintended cruelty of life. Ask little, receive little, shake it off and move on.
The dynamics of family and friends are way different. They are developed over time through many meetings and, hopefully, include allowances for “understandable” breaks or blow-ups. With the advantage of continuation comes a chance for correction but is there a limit to how much we can change in our illness before we become no longer known? No longer the same person and now someone who has been altered by internal turmoil that makes us fragile, self-protective, explosive, timid, angry, unappreciative and on and on. An unsettling curiosity formed of intimate relation and stranger. There’s a predictability that forms into a feeling of safety in relationships and the changed person we are may violate that feeling?
Scott, these are excellent observations! Personally, I don’t think you’re over-expecting when it comes to your medical team. All you’re asking for is for them to follow the hippocratic oath. They are failing at their jobs. They’re in the business of “caring” for patients, yet they ignore patients’ needs. This is the culture they’ve built for themselves it seems. Many other patients must be experiencing your frustrations, but this shouldn’t be a reason to stop demanding the attention and respect you deserve as a human being. Also, because we are dealing with illness, we become a lot more aware of this type of abandonment. Like Wendi mentioned (above), illness magnifies everything. One solution would be to expect less but keeping in mind you’re also in the business of survivorship. The challenging part is how to create the balance when you also need some level of cooperation.
The dynamics of family is the most challenging one of all, because there’s too much commonality. It is easier to walk away from other situations than to walk away from family, and I am not referring to the ‘physical form’ of walking away. That’s easy. Now to emotionally walk away is to also disconnect ourselves from all associations, which include other family members as well. Fact is, just because you’re biologically related to someone doesn’t mean you’re forever supported, loved and protected. We pressure ourselves to believe a certain ideology that doesn’t always prove to be true. And perhaps this is the issue.
The topic about becoming more vulnerable during illness has always intrigued me. I might actually address this later. I think a huge part of us feeling disappointed has to do with this emotional transition.
I’ve always thought “cancer makes it more so”. It doesn’t magically solve old problems or dwarf them in the life vs death comparison. Rather, I found cancer magnified everything. I was never patient–once I had cancer it eradicated all my patience–it just magnified that personality flaw (that is just one example). Interpersonal problems I had–ugh I did not have this “now that I have cancer that silly problem with that person doesn’t matter”–hell no, it just got exacerbated.
Anyway, that is my take on this particular “lesson” area of cancer. Hope that makes sense.
Hi Wendi, everything you said makes perfect sense. I can relate to your experiences, especially about cancer magnifying everything. Ever since my dx, everything seems rawer and more dramatic than ever. I def. have handled my relationships outside of my family the same way you have — I don’t have the need to ‘fix’ anything and I also have little patience. Family has been a little different, because of my expectations. I still have my ‘human moments’. I like your attitude. xx
Rebecca, I’m glad that you had your grandmother at a crucial time in your childhood, and that she mothered you well. It hurts to read that anyone would feel that you got cancer because you needed to be taught a lesson. Wow, what a wretched way to think. I’m with you on most cancer movies. I can’t even bear to watch most of them. I think those of us who are honest know that cancer does not ‘make’ anything. Like any life trauma though, it does show us what we and our families and friends are really made of, for good and for ill. On top of the harshness of cancer and treatment, what we sometimes learn about those who are close to us can be very harsh as well. I don’t know if we can ever really accept all this, if by ‘accept’ we mean that we reconcile ourselves to the trauma and disillusionment and peacefully put it on some psychological shelf to forget about it. I certainly haven’t been able to do that. But time and trying to live in the moment has helped. All we can ever do, I suppose, is keep putting one foot in front of the other, and perhaps what we can come to accept is that these painful experiences are always with us in some way, but hopefully leavened by a lot of other parts of ourselves and our lives that have nurtured us. Hugs. Kathi
Kathi, thank you for everything you said. The comment about “cancer being a lesson” was said to me in reference to another family member who had been diagnosed (after I was diagnosed) so it hit me twice. I took his comment personally and expressed my discomfort to him. I even asked him if he was suggesting I was been taught a lesson too. He said no. I said he was full of shit. He never made a comment about cancer to me again but our relationship has changed. I totally agree with you when you say that the things we learn about those who are close to us can be very harsh. I don’t believe it’s possible to fully accept it without sacrificing the relationship. What I mean is that I can no longer act/be the same with those people so the best thing for me to do is to distance myself from them. I do try to embrace the good people in my life. I am sorry you’ve dealt with some disappointments too. xx
Family is a complicated thing and your family dynamic seems to be particularly so. I think that there are many areas in our lives where we would love the Hollywood ending. Not just with cancer. With career, love, children, travel, etc, etc… It’s not the reality. I think I appreciate movies, theatre and art where maybe things aren’t resolved or end on a note where things may not be ok. That’s real life. Is it cathartic that way? Maybe. Maybe not. But art doesn’t always accurately imitate life and life doesn’t always accurately imitate art. Great post.
Hi Carrie, I agree with everything you said. Most of us wish life was a lot simpler but simplicity is not the reality for most of us. I too have an appreciation for movies that portray real life experiences. But fantasy-like movies are more profitable. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. xx
Rebecca, yes, a lot of patients here in Alberta feel the indifference of the medical system but in spite of some sophisticated feedback forums and the fact that Albertan’s pay the most per-capita in all of Canada for medical care, the system stinks. The latest government funding scheme to pay part of the socialized medical costs are posters all over the hospitals asking patients to show their appreciation for the wonderful, caring folks on staff by donating into a fund to support services. Ha! Do I get cash back for being left to die twice by their caring ways? I’ll leave that question alone.
Thinking of vulnerability and paybacks, we often surrender our logic and defenses to absorb the full impact of feelings. We walk right into love and the possibility of total disaster because we can’t NOT do it without withering inside. We consciously take risks and we often pay a heavy but sweet price to BE human. The utter foolishness of being sick I think falls into the category of the blind trust we place in love and those who love us—that we will not be left to be alone and helpless. Really, what else CAN we do? How often do we openly confess to being in need? Where do we get the vocabulary to give unconditionally without winding ourselves into speechlessness? How do we “learn” to be vulnerable and not feel devastated (not just disappointed but betrayed) by the slights of daily life? Who thought being sick would automatically volunteer us for this deep look into ourselves?
I look forward to reading your thoughts on vulnerability—be gentile with yourself.
Rebecca, I’m catching up on your blog. This is a heartfelt, heartbreaking post but one that touches on a very important topic — the family dynamic and cancer. I might actually write about how cancer has not only NOT resolved my family issues, but how cancer has worsened them. Life is not the Hollywood scripts. There will always be unresolved family issues — unless one is a member of the Brady Bunch! I’m sorry that you’ve had people turn away and lost your maternal grandmother when you were so young. For me, cancer unleashed some horrifying monsters in my family and fueled resentment on my part and my parents’ part. Cancer does not always unify families, as we know.
Thank you for this insightful post.
Beth, I remember from some of your posts the dynamics in your family were challenging as well. Please write about this topic. I agree it is very important because it can put us in a mental cage. Cancer magnifies everything and it also makes us question relationships, for some strange reason. It really showed me how “dependent” I was on some emotional aspects of my life – very normal. Truth is, we don’t have to be. Society creates this criteria and these rules and sometimes all they do is create a burden for us. I am in the process of learning how to detach myself from everything because that sometimes can hold us back. Should have done so years ago. I am sorry you’ve dealt with some family issues but remember WE identify who family is, if you know what I mean. I hope you’ve adjusted. Looking forward to reading your post. xoxo
Rebecca, be careful with the idea that detachment from hurtful relationships will resolve things. The structure of our selves is way more entangled and lacks the detachable sub-assemblies we would often wish to toss out the window as we drive down the road. I’m not sure if it makes sense but I find the struggle to sort people into “good-for-me” and “bad-for-me” types leads to negative place where my actual lack of control makes me feel worse.
For myself, and considering the price I’ve paid, my illnesses should have damn well made me some kind of saint or the world’s most self-contained pony in the whole make-believe world. It hasn’t.
How much hurt can we control?
Scott, you’re very wise. I understand your point because I’ve often found myself starting all over (just when I thought I was over it). I still have a strong desire to not feel things as much anymore, and the way I am doing it is through acceptance of the things I cannot change. I’ve created this ideal image in my head of how things should be. This approach hasn’t helped me. My therapist said to me the other day that the “shell” our parents build for us in order for us to feel safe stays with us for a long time. The idea that there is justice and that we can’t possibly get hurt. Yes, we become adults but somehow still hold on to that shell (makes me think of denial). Wondering if this is what happens to us.
If only illnesses could make us all saints. I believe we all stay the same. And in my opinion, this is a good thing.
Thank you for making me think.